10 major Soviet artists you need to know

Alexandra Kharitonova, art historian and curator of the Tretyakov Gallery exhibition, "Socialist Realism. Metamorphoses. Soviet Art of 1927-1987", has chosen 10 Soviet artists who thrived in the mid-20th century. She is convinced that the majority left a legacy that goes far beyond mere propaganda art.

1. Alexander Labas (1900-1983)

Labas was an artist whose career encompassed the whole of Soviet art, from the Society of Easel Painters (OST), which depicted the new Soviet reality using methods of the German Expressionists, to figurative art with strong Avant-garde elements. His painting, On the Metro, on one hand reflects his interest in futuristic industrial themes and, on the other, is executed in an absolutely Avant-garde spirit.

Alexander Labas. Metro, 1935
Alexander Labas. The Morning after the battle, 1929

2. Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944)

In a style that ranged from the Avant-garde and the legendary Jack of Diamonds group to a return to Old Masters' style and preserving the physiological aspect, Mashkov's art is incredibly diverse and exciting. He is the author of the absurd and ironic version of the Soviet still life.

Ilya Mashkov. Self-Portrait with Pyotr Konchalovsky
Ilya Mashkov. Soviet breads

3. Aleksandr Deyneka (1899-1969)

Deyneka is one of the most significant and famous Soviet masters. As an artist he was very diverse - in the 1920s and the 1930s, you could almost speak of two “different” men and artists - but at the same time he created his own distinctive style. His art does not fit into the generally accepted concept of Socialist Realism because with each of his large-scale works he came up with a completely new Avant-garde solution. Also, despite mixing with the highest echelons of the Soviet nomenklatura, he managed to remain true to himself.

Aleksandr Deyneka. The Lenin's Outing With Children, 1938
Aleksandr Deyneka. Football, 1924

4. Dmitry Nalbandyan (1906-1993)

Nalbandyan was a complex and contradictory figure, but at the same time a very ironic artist. He joked that his career had stretched “from Ilyich to Ilyich”, i.e. from when the country was ruled by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev. His art was like a litmus paper: he set the aesthetic canons of every period in the history of art. As an artist working under Joseph Stalin, he captured the Soviet leader's love of heavy minimalism, whereas under Nikita Khrushchev he effectively created another canon that could almost be described as Soviet Impressionism.

Dmitry Nalbandyan. The Great Friendship, 1950
Dmitry Nalbandyan. Autumn Morning at the Campfire. Relaxation. 1959

5. Ekaterina Zernova (1900-1995)

One of the most outstanding female artists of the Soviet era, on par with Aleksandr Deyneka, Zernova was perhaps the most accomplished artist specializing on militaristic themes, creating images of different troops that comprised the Workers 'and Peasants' Red Army. In her paintings, even a tank became a full-fledged hero.

Ekaterina Zernova. Collective farmers welcome tank crew during maneuvers, 1937

Ekaterina Zernova. Selmashstroy poster, 1930

6. Viktor Midler (1888-1979)

A subtle and underestimated artist, in the 1930s Midler was curator of the Tretyakov Gallery's department of the latest trends in Russian art. He is the author of one of the most emblematic works of art of that period - the painting, Political Education onboard a Battleship, which is in the collection of the ROSIZO state museum and exhibition center.

Viktor Midler. Political Education onboard a Battleship
Viktor Midler. Hockey at the Dynamo stadium. 1948

7. Aleksandr Laktionov (1910-1972)

Laktionov was a paradoxical figure and an artist who belonged already to the next generation. He explored the art of the Old Masters but at the same time created his own innovative interpretations of generally accepted plots close to Surrealism. That equally applies to his best-known work, Letter from the Front. He also created very interesting smaller works - for example, still lifes, which, as a freer genre, better reflected his blend of magical realism and surrealism.

Aleksandr Laktionov. Letter from the Front, 1947
Aleksandr Laktionov. A still life

8. Georgy Nissky (1903-1987)

Nissky's career had several periods of artistic blossoming. He started out with rather brutal battle scenes, but then became an iconic figure for artists of the 1960s generation. He managed to create his own style, absolutely inimitable and distinct in all its elements, and at the same time to remain a completely humble and approachable person. In one famous anecdote about him, a group of young artists gathered together to go out for a beer, and Nissky, a famous and well-established master, ran after them shouting: "Guys, wait, take me with you!"

Georgy Nissky. Pushkin's Square, 1966-1967

Georgy Nissky. Above the Snows, 1964

9. Pavel Nikonov (1930)

Nikonov is perhaps the main representative of the "harsh style" of the early 1960s still working today. He changed his style several times, from multi-layered almost monochrome paintings to his own version of primitivism with masterly color and composition decisions.

Pavel Nikonov. Bad Weather
Pavel Nikonov. Geologists, 1962

10. Tatyana Yablonskaya (1917-2005)

Yablonskaya is the author of two landmark paintings and an artist perhaps best known to the general public. Her paintings, Morning and Bread, were reproduced in every school textbook of the Soviet era, as well as in magazines and on numerous posters. Bread became a symbol of the theme of abundance in Stalin-era art, while Morning marked the beginning of the Khrushchev thaw. At the same time, she always remained a very strong and versatile artist, changed her styles, and developed her own version of primitivism in the spirit of Henri Rousseau. 

Tatyana Yablonskaya. Morning, 1954

Tatyana Yablonskaya. Summer, 1967

The exhibition "Socialist Realism. Metamorphoses. Soviet Art of 1927-1987", organized by the ROSIZO state museum and exhibition center, is on display at the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow through June 6, 2021. 

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